I’ve been studying and practicing stoicism recently. If you’re like most people, you may have a picture of a stoic as someone with a stiff, upper lip and not having emotions. This is a misunderstanding. Stoicism as a philosophy goes back to the 3rd century B.C. and practitioners include Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. It is all about choice and how we respond to external events that are out of our control. You can learn more about stoicism through links at the end of this post. In the meantime, this definition from the urban dictionary gets to the heart of it (I won’t include the crude example that follows the definition).
“Someone who does not give a shit about the stupid things in this world that most people care so much about. Stoics do have emotions, but only for the things in this world that really matter. They are the most real people alive.”
A stoic learns to identify what is not in his or her control and to focus on what is. It doesn’t mean that they don’t feel emotions about their circumstances. Instead, they notice and feel and let the emotions flow through. They don’t let them rule their behaviour.
Isn’t this what living a contemplative life is all about?
In my abstract photography workshop, we notice the qualities of a subject or scene – lines, shapes, textures, patterns, light, symbols – which point to essence or heart. This is often a playful and joyful experience. By practicing abstract photography, we are choosing joy. I found this poem from Diane Walker and posted it in the group.
the angle and the line…
Everywhere I look
the opportunity to choose
what brings joy.
brings another choice:
where will I stand?
Or in light?”
So, part of being a stoic is giving yourself permission to choose joy, to be aware of what brings you joy, and focusing on that. For, what brings you joy is what matters.
Choose Not to be Harmed
Choosing joy is a little easier than choosing not to be harmed. A recent email from The Daily Stoic quotes Marcus Aurelius (the Roman emperor who wrote about stoicism),
“Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.”
Easier said than done, I know, like most philosophies of life. Yet, this is an adventure in seeing and being. There is harm in the world on a daily basis. We will all experience harm at some point in our lives, whether physically or emotionally. Yet, we still have a choice in how to respond.
Imagine: something happens that could intentionally or unintentionally cause harm. Once you experience the resulting emotions, once you’ve calmed down, you can change the lens from which you see the situation. You can determine the meaning of the event and choose how to move forward. You can choose not to be harmed. A classic example is shown in the film, Life is Beautiful, about the Holocaust. The Dalai Lama is a living example.
It takes practice. And, it’s best to start with small things, like when you’re cut off in traffic, or you face a rude customer, or experience an unconscious slight from a friend or family member. How dare they? We often let these things become big in our minds. Before you know it, our day is ruined. The stories we make up about why someone would do that or what it means are just that – stories. They may be mostly true, partially true, or not true at all. Guaranteed, they’re never the full truth.
What can you do instead? Choose not to be harmed. Take a deep breath to calm yourself down. Realize that it’s not about you, it’s about them. Wish them well and move on. In a sense, this is a form of forgiveness, which is always for the benefit of the forgiver. It doesn’t mean you forget or condone the action or behaviour of the person who supposedly did you wrong, but you let it go. Because, let’s face it. It’s said and done and out of your control.
We all need to be forgiven at some point in our lives. This is a lifelong process, but hopefully with practice we can experience more joy and less harm by choosing the lens through which we see.
Choose joy. Choose not to be harmed.
If you want to learn more about stoicism, check out these resources.
The Daily Stoic – What is stoicism?
How to Be a Stoic – The New Yorker
The Only Thing you Need to Get Good At – David Cain, Raptitude